This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.
A state bill looking to expand hate crime protections to include crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity received support from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.
A resolution supporting state House Bill 198, sponsored by assembly President Kelly Cooper and assembly Vice President Hal Smalley, passed 5-4 at Tuesday’s assembly meeting. The state bill would add “sexual orientation and gender identity” to the list of aggravating factors considered at sentencing.
Since January, Soldotna City Council and Kenai City Council have both passed similar resolutions.
The resolution came in the wake of a series of alleged incidents on the Kenai Peninsula. In November, Sterling resident Tammie Willis reported that a threatening note was left on her truck. Later that month, Willis reported that a rock was thrown at her windshield. In December, she reported being attacked in her home. She said she believes the incidents were motivated by her sexual orientation. The reported attack in Willis’ home led to a Jan. 4 town hall meeting, which opened the discussion for HB 198. After the town hall, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, introduced HB 198.
State statute 12.55.155(c)(22) currently defines an aggravating factor for hate crimes as “the defendant knowingly directed the conduct constituting the offense at a victim because of that person’s race, sex, color, creed, physical or mental disability, ancestry, or national origin,” but does not include sexual orientation or gender identity as an aggravating factor for sentencing of a person convicted of the crime.
HB 198 would amend statute to expand hate protections to include sexual orientation or gender identity.
Willis spoke to the assembly Tuesday night, telling them she has been unable to return to her home in Sterling after the reported incident in December.
“I was repeatedly cut with a knife and punched until almost my entire left side was covered in bruises,” Willis told the assembly. “It took 20 staples and two stitches to put me back together and almost two months for the bruises to heal. I rarely go out alone anymore and when I do it’s for short trips and with the company of a friend. I don’t sleep well. I have panic attacks in the dark and I still wake my wife up with nightmares.”
Willis said that since sharing her experience, she has “learned the hard way of why people don’t often come forward with their stories.”
“The outpouring of hatred seen on social media since my coming forward cuts deep just like the knife did,” Willis said.
She said at the same time, she’s seen support from people all over Alaska. She spoke in support of the resolution and HB 198, saying it sends a clear message that “hate and violence are not values we share in this community.”
Testimony gets heated
After Willis’ testimony, assembly member Jesse Bjorkman asked Willis to speak to accusations regarding her story that are circulating around the community.
“I respect you as a person and because of that I feel it’s only fair to make sure you know what people are saying to us and there are people who don’t believe your story,” Bjorkman said. “I’m going to ask you these questions because they are things that have been asked of me and things that I have been told. There’s an accusation out there that the handwriting written on the note that was written by whomever left the note and your own handwriting that was put on the note is very similar. How do you respond to that?”
Willis said the accusation was not true. Cooper stopped the meeting for a two-minute recess and returned, asking Willis to respond to Bjorkman.
Willis said Bjorkman’s question is “exactly why people in the LGBTQ community don’t come forward and report the assaults and the violence that they face.” She said people would rather “dismiss those experiences than believe it can actually happen in their community.”
“I have read the posts on Facebook and every one of them has killed me when I read it, and it never would have happened if I had not come forward,” Willis said. “Every day I get hate mail. I get accusations that I’m lying, that I’m fake news, that I should go kill myself because people don’t want to believe my experience is true. It is true.”
In response, Bjorkman said it is never OK to attack and harm others and asked Willis to keep telling her truth and her story.
Community weighs in
Kaegan Koski, a junior at River City Academy, shared a student perspective with the assembly. Koski described experiences his peers in the LGBTQ community face. He said students he knows receive messages from “fake Instagram accounts” made by other students. The messages include the “F-word and other bigoted slurs telling the students in question repeatedly to kill themselves.” Koski said students can block the Instagram accounts, but that new ones are made shortly after “to continue the brutal onslaught.”
Koski said his peers tell him they are “compelled to commit self harm” as a result of the messages.
“I understand that this legislation isn’t a cure-all,” Koski told the assembly. “I understand that not every act of violence will stop. But when we as a community and a borough decide that this kind of harassment, this maltreatment of our fellow people is wrong, people begin to follow suit. It changes the climate when our government says that this is not right. When we say it with action and not with just words, we protect people from atrocious, hideous acts of violence. We show victims and citizens that they are not alone.”
David Brighton of Kenai also spoke in support of the resolution. He said it’s difficult to live in the area as a member of the LGBTQ community.
“I know of more than one member of the LGBTQ community who is planning on moving out of this area, out of the Kenai Peninsula, because this is a hard place for members of the LGBTQ community to live,” Brighton said. “We don’t want it to be that way, most of us, I hope.”
Of the nine assembly members, five were in support of the resolution: Kenn Carpenter, Smalley, Cooper, Willy Dunne and Brent Johnson. Many of the assembly members in their comments before the vote said they were concerned people in the borough were living in fear.
“As elected officials, we can’t remain silent when people in our communities live in fear,” Smalley said.
“It may not be my belief, but I believe in people, so I’m going to support this,” Carpenter said. “… Two hundred people show up to a town hall in one little community? There’s an issue, so we should support this.”
“I am here,” Cooper said. “I believe you and you do not deserve to have to go through life — life is hard enough. We shouldn’t worry about the people we love, whether tonight is the night or today is the day or when they’re 20 minutes late from being home, if there was some fool out there who decided they were going to teach them a lesson.”
Dunne, who signed on as a co-sponsor of the resolution, said the state needs to add sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class under the hate crime definition.
“We saw that in our society for many years with race,” Dunne said. “As a nation, we decided that is not acceptable and now it’s time to say it’s not acceptable for people of a certain sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Johnson said that there is always a need for minority people to be protected.
“The majority can gang up against a minority and harass them to no end,” Johnson said. The people in this community — gosh, I saw it and you’ve seen it — these people need protection because they’re being mistreated … I hope that we can have sympathy and that eventually humanity will grow past these insane things.”
‘Wrong things are wrong’
Assembly members Norm Blakeley, Bjorkman, Tyson Cox and Brent Hibbert voted against the resolution.
Hibbert and Blakeley both said they have been “struggling” with the resolution. Hibbert said he sees a division in the community and believes the resolution will cause more division between groups.
“When a crime is committed against a person, whether they’re gay or whether they’re not, I still think that it should be the same punishment because once we start singling out different groups I think that’s when the division comes and the tolerance goes away,” Hibbert said. “I still believe this is going to lead to more division and hate and discontent with our communities. I think we need more love.”
Bjorkman also said protection should be equal to all people under the law.
“I can’t support this resolution because I think wrong things are wrong,” Bjorkman said. “We should value all people equally and we should have equal protection under the law. We should speak up to people who perpetuate violence in our community and stand strong together as people, as Alaskans.”
Cox said he does not support the violence happening in the community, but that he did not support hate crime legislation at all.
“I personally don’t support hate crime legislation at all,” Cox said. “I don’t believe it to be that effective. I believe it to be exclusive and somewhat arbitrary in the fact that it all depends on what the political mood is of a given legislation.”
Copies of the resolution will be sent to Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai/Soldotna; Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski; Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer; and Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai/Soldotna.